During a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, Latino lawmakers urged President Biden to support an effort to legalize some undocumented immigrants through the budget reconciliation process if the procedure is used for his infrastructure bill, attendees and aides briefed on the private discussion told CBS News.
The president seemed open to the idea, the people said, noting that Mr. Biden restated his commitment to placing immigrants living in the U.S. without authorization on a pathway to citizenship and highlighted their economic contributions.
"It is definitely a priority for President Biden and Vice President Harris," California Congressman Raul Ruiz, who attended the meeting as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told CBS News. "Through immigration reform, through a pathway to citizenship for our essential workers, DREAMers, farmworkers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, there's so much economic benefit for American families."
Ruiz said the current strategy is to try to garner bipartisan support for Mr. Biden's infrastructure proposal, dubbed the American Jobs Plan. But if Democrats are unable to get 10 Republican senators to back the bill, the budget reconciliation process will likely be used again to bypass the filibuster rules, which require 60 votes for the passage of most legislation in the currently evenly-divided Senate.
The inclusion of legalization provisions in the reconciliation process — which progressives and immigrant advocates have backed for months — would need to be approved by the Senate parliamentarian, as the procedure is supposed to be used for budget and tax items.
"In the case of a budget reconciliation, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has a very strong argument to make to the parliamentarian that providing a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, farm workers, Dreamers, TPS holders is an economic budget issue, given its enormous positive effects in our economy," Ruiz added.
House Democrats have already introduced several stand-alone bills this Congress that would allow subsets of the nation's undocumented immigrants, including those who came to the U.S. as children, Temporary Protected Status recipients and farmworkers, to gain permanent legal status. Another proposal led by Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas would legalize immigrants deemed to be essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Linda Sánchez, who participated in Tuesday's meeting, have also introduced companion bills, based on an outline crafted by Mr. Biden's team, that would place most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. on a pathway to citizenship. To date, no Republican lawmaker has publicly supported the broad legalization plan, dubbed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.
During Tuesday's meeting with Mr. Biden, there was an acknowledgement that efforts to pass immigration bills tend to falter during sharp increases in apprehensions along the southern border.
For weeks, Republicans in Congress have faulted the Biden administration for the record number of unaccompanied children entering U.S. custody. The administration last week justified its temporary retention of the record-low refugee ceiling instituted by former President Donald Trump by citing the logistical and humanitarian challenges at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Given the cyclical nature of migration flows, the lawmakers told Mr. Biden on Tuesday that the U.S. government should create a civilian humanitarian response corps, modeled after the Department of Health and Human Services' Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, for the southern border, according to Ruiz and another attendee.
"It would be mostly composed of case workers, social workers, nurses, but not limited to, so that they could be rapidly deployed and called into duty to help expedite and organize the processing of claims and the necessity of families," Ruiz said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. In a read-out of the meeting, the White House confirmed that Mr. Biden and lawmakers discussed immigration legislation, as well as the "humanitarian response" at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said they also discussed with Mr. Biden ways to reduce food insecurity, poverty, violence and other factors that push families and children in Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The lawmakers agreed to schedule a follow-up meeting on these issues with Vice President Kamala Harris, who Mr. Biden placed in charge of overseeing diplomatic efforts with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the main sources of migration to the southern border.